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Egypt sets sights on Hamas

Hamas has an estimated 20,000 fighters, with another 20,000 in its police and security forces.

Hamas has an estimated 20,000 fighters, with another 20,000 in its police and security forces. Picture: AFP.

CAIRO - After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood at home, Egypt's military rulers plan to undermine the Palestinian group, Hamas, which runs the neighbouring Gaza Strip, senior Egyptian security officials told Reuters.

The aim, which the officials say could take years to pull off, includes working with Hamas's political rivals Fatah and supporting popular anti-Hamas activities in Gaza, four security and diplomatic officials said.

Since it seized power in Egypt last summer, Egypt's military has squeezed Gaza's economy by destroying most of the 1,200 tunnels used to smuggle food, cars and weapons to the coastal enclave, which is under an Israeli blockade.

Now Cairo is becoming even more ambitious in its drive to eradicate what it says are militant organisations which threaten its national security.

Intelligence operatives, with help from Hamas's political rivals and activists, plan to undermine the credibility of Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war against the Fatah movement led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

According to the Egyptian officials, Hamas will face growing resistance by activists who will launch protests similar to those in Egypt that have led to the downfall of two presidents since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Cairo plans to support such protests in an effort to cripple Hamas.

"Gaza is next," said one senior security official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders."

Asked why Egyptian intelligence is not going after Hamas now, another senior security official said: "Their day will come."

Egypt accuses Hamas of backing al Qaeda-linked militant groups which have stepped up attacks against security forces in Egypt's Sinai peninsula over the past few months. The attacks have spread to Cairo and other cities.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas deny accusations of terrorism, and the Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism.

The group was ousted from power in Egypt after the military threw its weight behind street protests last summer.

Freely-elected president Mohamed Morsi is now on trial on charges of inciting the murder of protesters during his presidency.

Egypt's military-backed government has cracked down hard on the Brotherhood, arresting almost its entire leadership and thousands of its backers as well as formally declaring it a terrorist organisation.

But the situation is very different in Gaza, where Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, is heavily armed, has years of experience fighting Israel, and moves swiftly to squash dissent.

A Hamas official said the comments made to Reuters by Egyptian officials showed Cairo was inciting violence and trying to provoke chaos.

"We reaffirm that Hamas did not and never would intervene in the internal Egyptian affairs," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. "No one should ever dream to weaken Hamas."

This is an exclusive Reuters story.

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